There’s a quote from the New York Times on John Grisham’s Theodore Boone: The Abduction (Penguin, 2011) that reads, “Not since Nancy Drew has a nosy, crime-obsessed kid been so hard to resist.”

Read the last Bookshelves of Doom at Kirkus on The Girl is Murder.

Thirty pages in, I was prepared to write a column refuting that claim by detailing the utter awfulness of Theodore Boone. But, as I continued on, I realized that it’s not Theo who’s insufferable... it’s the narrator.

Don’t get me wrong! Theo isn’t all that likable. 

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For instance, he is informally interviewed by the police after his friend April disappears. He’s deliberately unhelpful, and spends more time dismissively judging the policeman’s questioning techniques than worrying about his best friend. Theo withholds information—April had been talking about running away—because she swore him to secrecy**. Trustworthiness is an attractive quality. Arrogance, not so much.

That scene also serves to highlight the bizarre disconnect between the narration and the action. Theo and Sgt. Bolick’s calm conversation—Bolick glares at Theo once but never raises his voice or asks anything remotely off-base—is ended when Mrs. Boone goes all Mama Bear because, as the narrator claims, her son was being "rudely interrogated." Yet, in the scene, there's no sign of interrogation or rudeness. 

April Finnemore's parents neglect her to an alarming degree, and both have been arrested for drug violations. Focusing on those issues would be perfectly reasonable. However, neither the neglect nor the drugs seems to pain the narrator—and to a lesser degree, Theo—quite as much as their physical appearance, bohemian lifestyle, chosen professions and even the names of their children***. But, despite his distaste for Mrs. Finnemore’s muumuu, it isn’t Theo who consistently treats a guilt-ridden, terrified mother with condescension, contempt and a complete lack of empathy. No, it’s the narrator who, instead of actually showing the reader anything concrete, simply damns the family with the line, “Such was the Finnemore reputation.”

There’s also an ugly undercurrent of classism that runs throughout. Except for the plucky immigrants who provide Theo the opportunity to showboat in animal court, the lower-income adult residents of Strattenburg are portrayed as violent criminals or drunken louts. Theo’s uncle treats us to a jaw-droppingly offensive monologue about the “bums, drifters, hobos, homeless folk” that we don’t see because “they don’t wish to be seen.” Theo gets preferential treatment because of who his parents are. While that’s certainly believable, it doesn’t make him particularly endearing, and it really drives home the Some People Are More Equal Than Others lesson.

Overall, the storyline is slightly more compelling than Theos first outing, even if the mystery’s solution is realistically dull. The dialogue is often unbelievable, the characterization is inconsistent and the prose is stilted. Grisham shoehorns Law Lessons into every conceivable corner, Strattenburg still fails to evoke the modern day, and characters are defined by their appearance rather than their actions or personalities.

All this, and the book will probably still sell like gangbusters.

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*Clearly, that reviewer hasn’t read any of Wendelin Van Draanen’s Sammy Keyes mysteries. Or Peter Abrahams’ Echo Falls books. Or The Westing Game, for Pete’s sake. Even at their crankiest, any of those young sleuths could wipe the floor with Theodore Boone in an irresistibility contest. And pretty much any other contest, unless the prize was reserved for the kid with the most spoiled dog.

**Of course, two pages later, he spills all to his parents. Who don’t bother telling the police. Because the information “won’t help” to find April. And thus, we learn where Theo learned his know-it-all ways!

***I wonder how he’d respond to the parents in Hilary McKays Casson Family series.

If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is probably engaged in yet-another pitched battle with her new cat.